By Penny McGee Kopf, RDH; BS
Toddler teeth, there are 20 of them and they are as important and require as much TLC as adult teeth. By the age of 2 ½ -3, all primary (baby) teeth should be in place.
You’ve introduced your child to oral care from infancy on up, by wiping their gums and first few teeth with a soft cloth or infant brush. Your pediatrician and/or your dentist have done a quick check of your child’s mouth and teeth within 6 months of their first erupted tooth or around age 1.
Now it’s time to meet the challenge of showing your toddler how to brush and floss. Be gentle, consistent and persistent and your child will develop dental skills that will last a lifetime.
To start, you must realize that your toddler does not have the dexterity to clean their own teeth properly, so you will have to help with these tasks until approximately age 7.
Below are a couple pointers, and remember: Success is the name of the game. And you SHOULD make it a game!
• Brush in a circular motion with a small, soft toothbrush or power brush designed for toddler teeth – morning and evening. Make sure you brush at the gum line and the tops of the teeth
• From age 2 on, use a pea size amount of fluoride toothpaste spread on the brush
• Floss, yes, floss, preferably with small floss holders designed for kids
• If your water supply is NOT fluoridated, discuss the importance of a fluoride supplement with your dentist
• Limit your toddler’s intake of refined sugar
Around age 3, a more extensive visit to either a pediatric or general dentist is in order. Prepare your child for this visit by letting them tag along with you on your visit, reading a story etc. This will familiarize them with the upcoming outing. Only mention positive dental thoughts and don’t say “too much”.
Depending on your toddler’s level of maturity and comfort zone, this appointment may be just a “hello” or may involve more. Here is what you may expect:
• A thorough medical/dental history will be taken
• They will be introduced to the dental equipment and instruments
• The dentist will examine their teeth and gums
• A professional cleaning will be performed and a fluoride treatment applied, usually by the hygienist, if your toddler is cooperative
• If warranted, x-rays will be taken
• Home care instructions will be given
• And, the grand finale’, a visit to the toy chest
Now that I’ve mentioned the “HOW” to keeping your child’s teeth clean, let’s move on to a few more toddler dental situations and the “WHY”
The loss of primary teeth is not an option. Your child’s baby teeth are the foundation for their permanent dentition. They guide them into place, assist with chewing and digestion, aid in nutrition, and are essential to speech development. They support the muscles of the face, hence that “ear to ear” smile.
The following are the three most common toddler dental problems:
• Tooth decay causes cavities and if left untreated, infection, pain and tooth loss
• Malocclusion from intensive thumb sucking and pacifier use may result in overbite, under bite, narrowing of the palate and may affect jaw development and the eventual placement of the permanent teeth
• Gingivitis, inflamed gums from plaque buildup, may result in bleeding, sore gums and discomfort
Follow these simple rules to prevent the above problems.
• NEVER put your child to bed with a bottle of milk or juice. More often than not, this will result in baby bottle tooth decay. If they must have the bottle, only water
• Discourage toddler “ at will “ breast feeding and the use of sippy cups, containing milk or juice
• Monitor their intake of sweets/sugar; if they must occasionally have them, make sure they brush or at least rinse their mouth with water after
• While sucking is a natural instinct, severe, intensive, thumb sucking and pacifier use beyond the age of 3 is not recommended; work hard to break the habit
• And, of course, keeping the mouth and teeth clean and bacteria free is a must
Involve your toddler in their dental routine. Make it fun, not a chore. Let them choose their own age appropriate toothbrush and fluoridated toothpaste. Have them brush while you play a favorite song. Toddlers enjoy imitating. Let them brush when you brush. This helps fulfill the 2 minute time frame suggested for brushing. Give them a sticker or gold star as a reward for their accomplishment.
Education, communication and participation are the key words that will guide your toddler on to healthy dental habits.
Penny McGee Kopf, RDH; BS is a registered dental hygienist licensed in the states of Maryland and New Jersey . She completed her degree requirements at Fairleigh Dickinson University Teaneck, New Jersey in 1969 and 1971 and expanded functions licensure at Bergen Community College in 1985. Her clinical experience spans 41 years, divided between general and periodontics practice.